I’m not one of those people who rejoices in balmy evenings or sunbathing topless in the garden. I sunburn as soon as I draw my curtains in the morning and I seem to morph into an all-you-can-eat buffet for every single mosquito ever created. In fact, my life is basically just one big massive countdown to Christmas when I can wear black knits with black boots and black jeans without having to think twice about it. I know there will be plenty of you reading this now wondering what horror of a human being I am so let me try and redeem myself before you click the X button and never return to my cold, dark bat cave of Christmas decorations ever again…
Two words: summer menus. The one thing I can get onboard with about the turn of the sunny season is the launch of brand spankin’ new summer menus. I do get embarrassingly excited about the prospect of new dishes and just generally being able to experience my favourite restaurants in a different way. I suppose drinking cocktails al fresco isn’t so bad either. Except when the wasps come, then you won’t see me for dust but I let me not digress from the point here and that is the newly launched Gusto summer menu.
So back to the topic of summer menus… let’s talk about good old Gusto. It’s no secret that Gusto Heswall is practically my second home – if I’m not at work, sleeping or doing my damnedest to invest more time in home-cooking, you’ll find me at Gusto Heswall. Despite being a chain eatery, it is arguably the best Italian dining experience you can get without booking a plane ticket to Venice. I reviewed their summer menu last year so I thought it only right that I do the same again this year.
Maybe I’ll make it an annual tradition from now on?
Right so, the concept behind the Gusto summer menu is inspired by a trip of discovery to Milan. Many of the dishes pay blatant homage to Milanese culinary culture but have been adapted in true Gusto style. Highlights include a classic Saffron Risotto, a Truffle Funghi pizza with white cream base, Whole Salt-Baked Rainbow Trout and a vibrant Spaghetti Verdi.
Another notable USP of the new seasonal menu is a fresh focus on vegan options. Make way for the Vegano pizza adorned with sweet roast peppers, courgettes, pine nuts, caramelised onions and cauliflower rice, alongside a technicolour Rainbow Superfood Salad. I find Gusto’s dedication to providing food allergy-friendly dishes with such… well, gusto highly commendable. Cheese, meat and all that gluten-y good stuff are like the holy trinity of Italian cooking so to offer such considered vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free alternatives deserves a whoop and a holla in my opinion.
Although I am trying to embrace more vegetarian and ‘free from’ options of late – as you might remember from my account of veggie junk food at Down the Hatch – I decided to put my plight aside for our evening at Gusto. We went full throttle with a couple of Freshly Baked Garlic Pizza Bread smothered in mozzarella cheese (£5.95) and some Calamari with Lemon Aioli (£7.75) to start. The Gusto garlic bread has basically just become a diet staple with me and mine – we just cannot get enough of it’s crispy, bubbly base and the cracked sea salt, rosemary and roasted garlic cloves on top.
In terms of new summer starters, I have since also sunk my teeth into the 5-hour Slow Cooked Ragu, Saffron & Gran Moravia Arancini Rice Balls (£5.75) and it’s not just their title that is a bit of a mouthful. The plate comes served as three ample arancini, stuffed to the breadcrumb brim with al dente arborio rice, delicious ragu and just the right amount of sharp cheese. They sit on a smudge of spicy tomato coulis and are absolutely knockout. I’m gagging to go back for more!
Around the table for mains we had the Milanese Saffron Risotto – which comes with a choice of two toppings: artichokes, asparagus and roasted red pepper (£10.50) or a 5-hour slow-cooked ragu (£12.50) – a spicy Griffino pizza with chicken, pepperoni & red chillies and a good old fashioned Spaghetti Bolognese (£11.75). The latter, rather predictable choice was mine but I’m not afraid to admit it. It’s great to see that despite the impressive new additions, Gusto are still executing the classics to perfection.
My only one quibble with our food was that combination of pulled meat and creamy risotto were perhaps a little bit too much… mush on mush. While both elements of the dish were delicious in their own respective rights, the mixture of two similar textures was tad odd for me. The risotto itself was beautifully rich, well seasoned, ever so slightly sweet and almost akin to rice pudding with just a subtle hint of saffron and the pulled meat on top was delicious.I just think for texture’s sake, the risotto might be better suited to a chargrilled chicken breast or something more coarse with a bit more bite.
I may very well have also snuck in a delicious Sticky Toffee Pudding (£6.75) at the end of our meal but when you’re in the company of Gusto Restaurants, a dessert cocktail or three is pretty much mandatory. Their old classic Strawberry Cheesecake Martini made my top 10 cocktails to try before you die list last year but their new summer beverage offering has most definitely called for a revision of my shortlist. Why? Well because I need to send the Salted Caramel Russian and it’s adorable stroopwafel garnish straight to the top of the list.
I’ve consumed 6 of these so far since trying the menu less than 2 weeks ago so it’s safe to say that this a winner if you like something rich, indulgent and 200% worth the surplus calories. Another highlight for us is the Espresso Martini Flight Board (£12.50) which features 4 miniature espresso martinis, each with their own bespoke flavour. There’s classic, gingerbread, hazelnut and vanilla and although this isn’t the poison I would pick, I’m assured that the gingerbread espresso martini is absolutely unmissable. Innovative too – I like it.
If cream-based cocktails or espresso martinis aren’t your cup of tea, the summer drinks menu also sees a serious raising of the gin ante, including the popular Orange Sevilla (£9) which is a zesty muddle of Tanqueray Sevilla gin, Fever-Tree Mediterranean Tonic, Orange and Rosemary. Summer also sees the returns of the beautiful citrus-based Peroni Ambra beer which I tried and loved at the Gusto Pasta Masterclass last year.
As well as their catering for free-from options, another thing I always admire about Gusto and it’s well-thought-out menus is the selection of non-alcoholic beverages on offer. Believe it or not, I’m not actually a big drinker so I can really appreciate a bar or restaurant that has put some TLC into their mocktail menu or soft drinks list. I haven’t got any specific names to hand but I can vouch for the extensive list of juices, mocktails and milkshakes that take no less priority in terms of flavour or presentation at Gusto so designated drivers and non-drinkers, rejoice!
So all in all, summer at Gusto is looking to be a great success. It almost makes me want to forget all about Christmas trees, black knits and hearty winter recipes… almost.